Message: Who(se) Are We? | Scripture: Matthew 18:1-6 | Speaker: Pastor Stephen Choy
Every teenager wants to cement his or her status among their friends as someone who’s worthy of their friendship. I was no different. So, when I learned how to drive, I wanted to show all my friends how autonomous and privileged I was not only in being able to drive but in having a car at my disposal in a way that my other friends did not (my mom had a car, but she didn’t often use it, so most of the time, I got to split it with my sister).
I remember one specific occasion where my friends wanted to do something menial one day after school, and I promised all of them that I’d drive them. So, that night, I went home, and I told my mom that I was going to take the car to school the next day, so that I could hang out with my friends afterwards. And I remember her looking at me, she seemed a little confused, and she responded gently back to me, “Sorry, I need the car tomorrow, and even if I didn’t, I don’t think you should be taking the car to school. Daddy, can probably take you and your friends wherever you need to go, if you ask him.”
Now, that solution was actually sufficient. I didn’t really need the car during the day. I didn’t plan on going on any long drives anywhere, and I probably should have responded, “okay.” The problem was my ego, and I found myself responding to her with words that sounded something like, “too bad, I’m taking the car anyway, you owe this to me.”
Sure enough, as I left the room to go sit on the couch, my mom followed me, but instead of being angry and put-off by words, she simply said this, “Stephen, you need to evaluate your attitude and your entitlement. You have to remember that that car does not only belong to me and daddy, but your ability to use it is a privilege and not a right.”
And in that moment, although I tried to put up a demeanor like I didn’t care, I knew she was right, and that I had lost my sense of place. I had asserted my rights when I had none. I had claimed ownership of something I did not own. And I’m not talking about the car; I’m talking about my life. I had forgotten who my parents were, namely, that they were my parents and not my servants. And I had forgotten who I was, namely, not the parent but the child—fully dependent on my them to give me what I both needed and wanted. In other words, I had forgotten who I was because I had forgotten whose I was.
Our text today deals with this question, “Who are we?” Or better phrased, “Whose are we?” And this question is fundamental not only to understanding what our identity is right now, but what our identity will be for the foreseeable future. It’s a question of legacy and survival. It’s a question of enduring testimony and vision. And what I want to do for us today is cast a little bit of vision, but I want to root that in Scripture, letting the Bible speak for itself both as our unerring confidence and as our guide. So, would you follow along with me now, as I read from Scripture in Matthew 18:1-6. TWoL.
At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.
Our proposition this morning is “Fill the Church with Children.” And I hope you know, that I’ve phrased it this way to elicit a response from you. To clarify, I do mean this literally. I do hope that for those who can in our church that you might fill this church with literal children. But I also mean it symbolically and, even closer to home, I mean it personally for you and for me, and I want to get into what I mean by that over the course of our time here together, so let’s look now at our first point:
1) Develop a Heart for Children
Before we tackle our verses, two things need to be prefaced. The first is understanding who the intended audience of Matthew’s book is. And without getting into a lot of the historical debate about it, I’m just going to tell you that the apostle intended, mainly, for his book to be read by Jews, and more specifically, he wrote to Jewish leaders and Jewish Christians. Firstly, he wrote to Jewish leaders—those who had historically misled the people of God. And he wrote to them to warn them of their failure and to tell them: judgment is coming.
But he was also writing to Jewish Christians who were still trying to figure out who they were. People who were still being pressed on every side to convert back to their former ways. These men and women shared all the biological and ethnic heritage of their Jewish brothers and sisters, but they had inherited a new spiritual identity, and Matthew wanted to help them, affirm them, and articulate for them the significance of their new birth.
This leads me to the second thing that needs to be prefaced and that is understanding what the intended purpose of Matthew’s book is, namely, that it is theological and not chronological. He wants to give these Jewish Christians a message not only of warning against going back to their false piety but as an encouragement to persevere.
And the way that Matthew does this is by arranging certain stories and events in Christ’s life to align progressively with what we call units of discourse—five teaching sections that form the backbone of the book: Matthew 5-7, 10, 13, 18, and 23-25. And the specific way that these teaching sections develop is twofold. On the one hand, Matthew progressively reveals for us that Jesus is the fulfillment or the satisfaction of all the promises of God to his people. Jesus came not to erase an iota of the law but to fulfill/fill-in, with his life, every aspect of it.
On the other hand, Matthew progressively separates for us who exactly the people of God are—those who can identify as belonging to him, not only in this life, but for all time. And as we walk through Matthew, these themes of revelation and separation become more-and-more profound and centralizing until we get to the cross where the pinnacle of our revelation in Christ as the prophesied Messiah is secured and assured in our separation from the world through the gift of our faith that that man, who hung upon a tree, paid for the sins of you and me, so that now there is no condemnation for those whom he’s set free.
This is the overarching theology of the book, and it’s important for us to know this as we look at chapter 18 because for 17 chapters, Matthew, through the disciples, has been showing us that even those who were closest to Jesus did not always get what he was revealing to them, and why they were those whom he regarded as being set apart.
We’re to know this theologically as the disciples come to Christ and ask him, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” See, just a few verses earlier, Matthew has framed these events in such a way so that Christ has just told them for a second time that he would die and rise again three days later. The problem is that the disciples aren’t considering who Jesus has revealed himself to be, or on his claim that he would rise again. Their thoughts were on who he might not turn out to be if he’s dead.
So, their question is a rational one. It’s one rooted in the basic logic of the physical nature of the universe. People who die, do not undie. And if Jesus dies, then someone has to take his place so that the whole structure he’s built up doesn’t come crumbling down. In other words, the disciples have got the separation part down. They understand the theological nature of the kingdom—some people belong, and some others do not belong, and they belong because God, through Jesus, calls them. And because they are literally the twelve chosen to follow Jesus, they have this impression that they not only belong, but that they are, in a sense, the cream of the crop. They want to be the separated of the separated and know who’s earned top prize. For all that they seem to understand about being set apart, it seems that the revelation still alludes them.
In their question, the disciples display that they, up until now, are no different than the Jewish leaders and their wayward Jewish brothers and sisters. See, the issue facing Israel was not that they lacked capable, zealous, or ambitious people. The issue facing Israel was that they were out to save themselves, establish their own names in their own ways, and earn their own rights. They were a people that had forgotten their first principles—that it’s not about asserting your rights as those separate from God or meritorious of his favour. It’s about recognizing your separateness as a result of his revealed graciousness.
Said another way, the people of Israel had forgotten that it’s about the heart—a heart moved by one’s citizenship in a kingdom they had no business being a part of. This is the purpose for Christ’s revelation and their separation—this is the point of God’s election in the world—to show us our place, to remind us of who we are by bringing us face-to-face with whose we are, and to remind us that we are not the point. And Jesus does this for us—he does this for his disciples—not by putting us in our place, reprimanding us, demeaning us, or vilifying us—he does it by bringing the lowliest of us, a child, into our midst as our perfect example of one who is great.
I hope you see it in this one verse—Matt 18:2—the whole of the mystery of God’s wisdom in the gospel is brought into focus for all of us to see. Christ has been speaking in parables, but here, is a living parable of the most significant sort because Christ—the second person of the triune God—the one who was without beginning and who shall stand at the end to judge the living from the dead—he was called out of that glory as one poor and vulnerable to dwell in our midst, coming not just to live a righteous life but to die the most unrighteous death on our behalf. Christ is showing us, in this child, everything we are not, while emphasizing everything that he is. We expect our own glory, but he points us to his greater glory.
This is revelation that leads to separation, but the disciples do not see it, and Jesus is pleading with them in the most incredible way to open their eyes. You want to be great? Then you’ve got to know who you are by knowing whose you are. You must develop a heart for lowly children because you are supposed to be the lowly children when Christ stands in your midst.
When you truly love these poor, socially unimportant, sinful, dependent creatures above yourself, only then will you understand what the Son of Man has come to do with you. And only when you understand this will you be called sons and daughters in the kingdom of God. Develop a heart for children because in your loving the lowly, you display for them not the love of Pharisees and misled religious fanatics, but you display for them the love of God that has reconciled you to himself—a love rooted in the fact that you have been loved as a child when you deserved nothing of the sort.
2) Consider Your Heart for Children
How are we to develop a heart for children? Well, the first thing Jesus tells the disciples, as he brings this child into their midst is that they are to consider their heart for children—they are to consider what their attitude is both as those who are lowly and as those called to love the lowly. Look with me at vv. 3 and 6, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven . . .’” v. 6, “but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”
Notice with me how Jesus responds to their question in verse 3. He doesn’t actually answer them initially. No, he deals with an assumption that they make. These disciples have assumed that they’re a part of the kingdom. These disciples have assumed that it’s their right or inheritance to stand beside Jesus. But Jesus essentially responds to them, “what makes you think that you’re a part of the kingdom in the first place?”
Before you can ask the question, “who is the greatest in the kingdom?” you have to ask the even more basic question, “who belongs in the kingdom?” And the disciples have missed this time-and-time again. And yet, this was the main point of Christ’s very first discourse in his Sermon on the Mount. Who is the blessed man that receives the kingdom? The blessed man is the spiritually seeing man and not the natural man. The blessed man is the one who has seen his sinfulness and destitution, who mourns the state of his rebellion, who is meek towards others because he knows his sinfulness, who, in his sinfulness and lowliness, hungers and thirsts after that which is righteous—after that which gives life.
In other words, the blessed, spiritual man—the one who belongs in the kingdom—is one who is separated not because of his natural goodness, but because he has been enamoured and affected by the goodness of another. At the core of the disciples’ bravado and presumption is a self-absorption for their own glory, and the thing is, Christ desires to give them glory but not in the way that they expect to find it.
This is how he answers their question, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” He’s saying, you’ve got it backwards. Questions like these, thoughts like these, hearts like these will not suffice. No, the key to it all is turning and becoming like children. It’s everything but self-absorption and rights-claiming.
What you don’t see in the English is that the word turn is actually in the passive. It’s more accurate that we read, “unless you have been or unless you were turned.” Unless that heart has been reoriented. Unless those desires of death have been brought to life. Unless your state of rigidity has been quickened to activity—and quickened to what? Quickened to revelation. Quickened to satisfaction. Quickened to childlike desperation. Quickened to the thought of Jesus dwelling in your midst—unless this has been made your disposition, as one who is acted upon, and unless you realize that such a thing has been done to you out of an infinite supply of grace, you will NEVER enter the kingdom.
See, Matthew is very specific with the way he words himself here. The verb “to turn” is in the passive, and it comes before the verb “to become,” which is in the reflexive. In other words, for you to do anything in your life worthwhile to God—in order for you to become like a child, you have to first be made a child. No one who is a part of the kingdom enters in on the presumption of their own greatness. In order for you to see the grace that humbles you, you have to receive the grace that humbles you. In order to enter into the kingdom of heaven, you have to realize that your entrance isn’t because you’ve walked in but because you’ve been carried in. Your doing is always preceded by God’s acting, and so the only thing that makes you worthy—the only thing that defines who or what you are is God, not you.
B.B. Warfield once said, “I must preach the gospel to my heart every day. There is nothing in us or done by us at any stage of our earthly development because of which we are acceptable to God, we must always be acceptable by Christ’s sake, or we won’t be acceptable at all. It is always on his blood and righteousness alone that we can rest.”
And this why verse 6 is directly related to verse 3. Not only shall those who presume their own greatness, or their own sufficiency, apart from Jesus, never enter into the kingdom, but when they, as the Pharisees and Sadducees did, use their self-defined greatness and their self-sufficiency as a stumbling block for others from entering into the kingdom, there is no amount of grace sufficient to save them from the torment that awaits them. Let me be clear about this because I need to say these words with as much exactness as I can muster: Christ’s grace is sufficient for the salvation everyone, but not everyone will find Christ’s grace to be sufficient enough for them.
Before we ask what our place is in the kingdom, we have to consider whether or not we even belong there. We have to ask not only if we’ve been set apart but if the ground for our separation is based upon a fallible revelation that we define and ascribe for ourselves our own worth, or if our worth is based upon the infallible revelation of Christ who’s come into our midst, who’s come to turn our hearts, and who’s come to make us like himself.
Jesus here uses a child to diagnose the attitudes of our heart because it is in our heart for others—in our heart for lowly, desperate sinners—as those who have been saved from our own wickedness and arrogance that we see the heart of God for us in Jesus. Jesus’ heart is for the least in the kingdom. His heart is for the lowly child. His heart is for the wayward sinner because he himself knew what it was like to become lowly, poor, and desperate. He himself became sin who knew no sin, so that we, poor, lowly, desperate sinners might become the righteousness of God. And in his coming—in his condescension—he turns us, and he makes us to be like children—as those who see his supreme value and our supreme insignificance. This is why we must pay attention to the children—this is why we must develop and consider our hearts for them, because Christ has done this for us.
3) Possess a Childlike Heart
Ultimately, what these verses teach us is that who we are—and particularly, who we are in the kingdom—cannot be disassociated from who Christ has revealed himself to be. This is what we see in our final verses—4 and 5. Who is the greatest in the kingdom? It is the one, we’ve heard it before, who humbles himself like this child. These words are loaded, so let me explain them to you somewhat quickly.
The key word to all of this, of course, is the word humble. But what we need to realize is that this particular use of the word does not simply mean a mental or virtuistic attitude. It’s not just a lowering of our sense of self or our pride. It’s actually better to translate this word as humiliate. It’s a disposition in reality—what other people see you as—when they see you, in real life, the word here is that they are to see you as a humiliated one, like an actual child who is thought of as the lowest and the most useless in society. You’re not just making yourself feel lowly, you’re not just mentally or emotionally degrading yourself; in the eyes of others, you are actually lowly—you are actually degraded. You’re actually unimportant.
And it’s necessary to note Jesus’ use of this word here because it’s the same word that Paul, after meeting Matthew sometime in 40 AD, uses in his letter to the Philippians while in prison. Right? We all know the text in Phil 2:8, “And being found in human form, he [that is Christ] humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death upon a cross.” To help us consider what it meant for Christ to humiliate himself to this kind of obedience, Paul includes the word “emptied” in Phil 2:7. Christ emptied himself by taking the form of a servant.
Now, that doesn’t mean he stopped being the glorious Christ or that he stopped being God—the second person of the Trinity. It means that he put aside his claims and rights as Christ—as God, the second person of the Trinity—so that we might be able to look upon him, think of him as lowly, judge him in his weakness, condemn him for sins he never committed, crucify him as the most profane criminal, and watch as his innocent blood dripped off of his body and down that rugged cross. There the Creator, Sustainer, and Perfecter of all things hung upon a tree in humiliation, and he did it for you and for me.
This is what Jesus means when he calls us to humiliate ourselves, and we know this because of his next words: Whoever humbles himself like this child. It’s not just any child; it’s like this child. What’s so different about this child? It’s that he’s been called by Jesus to himself, and he comes over when he’s called, and he doesn’t just come over, he does so to stand in the midst of men who think only about themselves.
This is the disposition of one who is great in heaven. This is the character of one whom God shall exalt. And really, there is only one who is like this, which is why in verse 5, Jesus says, whoever receives one such child in my name receives me. Jesus is the greatest in the kingdom. Jesus is the humiliated exalted one, and only those who have received this Christ, seen that he has come in childlike obedience to dwell in the midst of arrogant sinners in order to bring them to himself—only those who treasure this Christ and live their lives towards other sinners in response to this Christ belong to Christ.
Brothers and sisters, as those who recognize we have no rights unto ourselves—as those who cannot be entitled, arrogant, or self-satisfied—we are not to forget who we are in light of whose we are. We belong to Christ; we live out our days as those who reflect Christ—we are those who possess a childlike heart willing to humiliate ourselves for the sake of displaying Christ because he, alone, is great. And we recognize that he is great, because by his own voluntary lowliness, we know now that he has made us great with him. The goal isn’t our greatness. The goal is Christ’s greatness. The goal is in our sacrificially making others great—this is what heaven will look like. These are the children whom God will glorify, and he glorifies them because they find their value not in themselves, but in their infinitely valuable Saviour.
You may be asking this morning, why, Stephen, are you preaching on this text to us? And the reason I’m doing it, TCCBC, is because of that last verse we covered in verse 5: whoever receives one such child in my name receives me. We all know that Christ is speaking figuratively and symbolically here. He’s not necessarily speaking of our reception of actual children, but of those who are worthless both in his sight and in the sight of the world. He’s testing us—telling us that our willingness to humiliate ourselves is the key to greatness. And it’s not enough that you humiliate yourself, but your inclination to such humiliation isn’t for the greatness per se but because the one who calls you to it is great. Your affections have been oriented towards worship, and that ought to change the way you do things.
And just like Jesus’ words, I want us to understand that when I call us, as a church, to fill this place with children, I am, for the most part, speaking figuratively and symbolically—that we, each one of us, is to possess a heart bent not upon the rights and privileges that we can assert against each other but upon a Christ who came for us, leaving his rights behind, to serve us, to die for us, to call us, and, above all, to love us. As he did, we are to be children of lowly stature in this world—those who are pitiable but have no need for their pity because we have Christ. And not only are we to be like this in the world, but we’re to be like this for one another. Loving one another, bearing one another up, dying to ourselves for the sake of one another BECAUSE Christ, literally, died to himself for our sakes. We aren’t a people connected by common, worldly interests, and I hope in time, we aren’t a people who are connected by a common ethnicity, because it shouldn’t matter if you have nothing in common with the person sitting beside you as long as you have Christ. Christ isn’t a baseline for our fellowship, he is the pinnacle, and nothing else exceeds him.
But what I also want us to understand is that we need to move from the figurative and symbolic into the literal. We are not a church that is bent only upon loving one another with childlike hearts—we are called to love and receive the children. We are, literally speaking, to be a church of generations, and we see that mandated for us throughout Scripture. We’re to train up young men and women. We’re to disciple. We’re to fill these halls with actual children, and we are to love those children and our young people SO THAT they might know the indelible love of Jesus.
And this is my hope in the coming weeks leading up to our council meeting—that I might emphasize among our pastors, leaders, and congregations the need to be a church that loves like children and that loves the children. My hope is to pivot our current way of worship to better facilitate our children’s worship so that it can happen simultaneously and so that those involved might be able to persevere in the task.
What I need from you, church, is to start thinking about what your role is in all of that. To ask whether or not you could be someone who dedicates your time and your effort to caring for these children in the name of the Lord because, like I said, this is an issue of legacy and survival. But more than that, it’s an issue of the gospel. A church who does not love like children, and who does not build a ministry to properly receive children in Christ’s name has nothing to do with Jesus. How we treat one another, how we treat children in our midst—all of it is supposed to reflect how Christ treats us, and it’s time for us to be intentional about this in every aspect of our church and especially with the next generation.
In addition, in the coming weeks, I’m asking if you might pray for our church—that we might be childlike in our Christian duty to one another, that we might wisely consider how to maximize our ministry to the next generation of our church, and that we might exalt our Saviour who has modeled this for us perfectly.
May God bless us in these endeavours as we seek to glorify him and the greatness of his Son.